I actually wolfed down The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory last year. Written by John Seabrook, a staff writer for The New Yorker, I do mean that I wolfed it down. I was obsessed. The creative process has long been a fixation of mine, and this book actually did a deep dive into the question that has always been nagging at the edge of my mind: why are these pop songs so…ear-worm-y?
It's beyond “catchy.” Current pop hits are actually designed to take hold of your brain and not let go. This is not by accident. It's purely by design. And the process by which the hit-makers come up with their every-seven-second “hooks” is both fascinating and bizarre.
I pride myself on having had good musical training on the piano during my childhood, and I later moved into band, then orchestra, then jazz band. I'm weak in some areas (I stink at improvising) and I'm great in others (I can sight-read at the drop of a hat). I also am blessed to have grown up in Hawaii, where music plays a huge role in local culture. There are lots of hotels and therefore lots of venues for amateur and fledgling professional musicians to cut their teeth. Some of these musicians (think: Bruno Mars, who went to my high school!) hit the big time, others stay contentedly at home in Hawaii, making us kama'ainas happy with live music available for any occasion. I even had a band teacher in junior high who was a working jazz musician, playing in local groups on the flute and saxophone.
Until I moved to the mainland I had no idea that this rich tradition was anything exceptional. Here in the northeast, there is live music available, but you have to make an effort. In Hawaii, it seemed no particular effort was necessary. It seeped into everything and went everywhere with you.
So back to John Seabrook's fantastic study of the current-day songmaking machine. He takes us back to the origins of the machine, with Denniz Pop back in the 90s, and also brings us into the present day with Ke$ha and her (apparently) nightmarish relationship with D.J./hitmaker Dr. Luke. If you've ever wanted to know exactly how this all works out (and if you've ever wanted to know why you can't stop humming the latest Katy Perry song), this is the book to read.
Best thing about it is that he has Spotify playlists. YES. Every chapter has a Spotify playlist that you can use to tease out exactly the musical elements he is referring to. Here's the page on his website where he lists his Spotify playlists.
What's also delightful is that John Seabrook, the writer, is also John Seabrook, the musician. Seabrook is a member of a band called The Sequoias, made up of journalists. Here's a link to their performance at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Weekend.
This book has changed the dynamic of how we talk about pop music in our household. We now examine the writers of every song, compare the likes/dislikes of the various producers, and point out commonalities and new trends. If you've been thinking that “they all sound the same,” you're right and you're wrong. Check out this book and see what you think.